Joe Biden is a bit of a funny character, what with his grandpa jokes and his “I commuted for 36 years” stories, but when he visisted The Late Show With Stephen Colbert on Thursday, he helped mark a shift in the American political atmosphere. That is to say, he helped the public realize that politicians can be actual people.
Biden’s almost 20-minute interview with CBS’ newly minted late night host was notable not just because of the vice president’s coy comments about whether he would run for president, but because he was honest about his struggle to make the decision. When prompted by Colbert, Biden was heart-wrenchingly honest about the recent death of his son, Beau, who Biden said was “better than me in almost every way.” Blinking back tears and taking his time to answer, Biden was open, honest, and human, able to access deep and dark emotions with disarming candor that would be impressive coming from anyone—and was shockingly forthright for a politician. Biden may or may not be campaigning for office anytime soon, but he left a mark as a guy in the nationwide political sphere who was willing to open up and show his tearful, God-fearing earnestness.
That could also be what draws me and so many other Americans to Joe Biden. He’s an actual person. He showed us his soft underbelly, and he’s not afraid to admit his flaws and insecurities. More than anything, he’s authentic. As Colbert himself put it on The Late Show, Americans like Biden because “when we see you, we think that we’re actually seeing the real Joe Biden. You’re not a politician who’s created some sort of facade to get something out of us or triangulated your political position or emotional state to try and make us feel a certain way.”
Authenticity is a big word in pop culture these days. Our desire for realness is responsible for the success of everything from Mumford And Sons to Kinfolk. We like celebrities like Chrissy Teigen and Patrick Stewart because they’re wry, funny, and open on social media. They seem like themselves, even if the version they’re putting out there is, naturally, the best possible version of themselves. (No one wants to see Captain Picard rant about flight delays.) In an age when it’s so easy to be fake, to put on false eyelashes, dye your hair, and take flattering selfies—or, in the extreme, to create an entirely invented persona online—we pride ourselves on ferreting out the authentic. We’re citizens of the Snopes era, questioning everything and prizing only the truest versions of reality.
It is, in a sense, why people like Donald Trump. His detractors call him a kook, a billionaire out of touch with reality and with no filter on his racist, classist, sexist mouth. His fans, on the other hand, admire his blatancy. In everything from stump speeches to his recent Rolling Stone profile, Trump seems handler-free, willing and able to say whatever comes to his mind. That kind of mentality, supporters say, will cut through the Washington bullshit, and it will show the rest of the world that America means business.
Trump’s hotheaded rants will probably keep him from becoming president, but his open mouth, like Biden’s, is actually an excellent model for what we should expect from our presidential candidates and politicians in general. When Biden spends significant time grieving his son on late night TV, he becomes not just a goofy Trans Am-driving icon, but a fleshed-out person. Trump, for all his faults, is who he appears to be. These guys want what they want and say what they want, and in comparison to Jeb Bush’s hokey, jokey interview during The Late Show’s premiere, it makes for great TV. As free as he tried to be, it was obvious that Bush was giving canned answers, working around the questions, trying hard to appear affable but not too emotional. That could be his authentic self. He could be a really boring person with nothing to say. But he’s probably not, and if we could see that, wouldn’t it make us like him more?
This sort of posturing isn’t anything new in politics—it’s the standard. It’s why Hillary Clinton has been taking selfies with Kim Kardashian and doing the Nae Nae on Ellen, after all. (She’s fun! She’s young-ish! Just because she’s smart and wears suits doesn’t mean she’s all business!) Like all the other presidential candidates, Clinton advisors have no doubt held thousands of hours of meetings to figure out how she can seem “real.” But by not caring at all—or seeming like he didn’t care—Biden did it better in just one television appearance.
That kind of authenticity is what we the voting public should demand, and what we’ve been gravitating toward for years. Look at the success of not only The Colbert Report, but also The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight. We like those shows because they cut through the red-state-vs.-blue-state bullshit. They get to the point, ask tough questions (even if it’s in a funny way), and hold politicians accountable for their actions. It’s hard-hitting journalism tempered with a jovial punch on the shoulder. And it’s that mix of “comedy-journalism or journalism-comedy,” to borrow a phrase from HitFix’s Daniel Fienberg, that could change not just late night TV but politics in general.
We don’t deserve this canned shit anymore. We all recognize it for what it is, and we should know better than to let it slide. If there’s anything both Joe Biden and Stephen Colbert taught America this week, it’s that politics can be different. Even career politicians can be real people, and even charming talk show hosts can throw a few elbows at the special guest sitting next to them. If we—as both viewers and voters—demand this type of media, this type of emotional honesty, we can get it. And while it might be tough to occasionally watch someone as jovial as Biden go through the stages of grief or process the hardest parts of his life, contending with that pain will make us both better citizens and better human beings. We deserve it, so let’s demand it.